United Arab Emirates Crown Prince Mohammed Ben Zayed spoke with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad by phone over the weekend to express solidarity over the ongoing coronavirus crisis. Some analysts said the call may also signify support from the UAE for reintegrating Damascus into the Arab League, from which it was expelled in 2011.
The UAE's Crown Prince Mohammed Ben Zayed took a fresh step over the weekend to improve ties with Damascus, in a phone call to discuss possible humanitarian aid for the Syrian government in the face of the increasingly dire coronavirus crisis.
The crown prince wrote in a tweet that he had "assured (President Bashar al-Assad) of the support of the UAE and its willingness to help the Syrian people."
"Humanitarian solidarity during trying times," he added, "supersedes all matters, and Syria and her people will not stand alone."
Call purely humanitarian
The UAE's Minister of State Zaki Anwar Nossiba told Arab media that the call was purely humanitarian in nature. He says that Sheikh Mohammed is looking beyond narrow political considerations in light of this exceptional crisis in order to help humanity as a whole … since we are all one family and must cooperate with each other.
A Syrian opposition TV station, however, claimed that the call was politically based, "given the UAE's interest in playing a role in rebuilding Syria and its concern over Turkey's growing role in the country."
Former Iranian President Abolhassan Bani Sadr told VOA he thinks the UAE has been trying to distance itself from Saudi Arabia in recent months, as well, changing its policy in Iran, Yemen and Syria.
He said that the UAE has been quietly changing policy in the region, making overtures to both Iran and Syria, in addition to distancing itself from the Saudi-led war effort in Yemen. The UAE, he added, does not have the same interests as Saudi Arabia, and is revamping its strategies.
The UAE reopened its embassy in Syria in 2018, but the weekend call by Zayed to al-Assad was the first of its kind since ties were originally cut in 2011. Some Arab analysts said Abu Dhabi is also supporting a quiet effort by Iraq and Lebanon to allow Syria to retake its seat at the next Arab League summit, due to be held in Algeria.
Theodore Karasik, a Washington-based Gulf analyst, told VOA that "the UAE has been working on how to best bring Assad and Syria back into the (Arab fold), especially when it comes to reconstruction."
He said that "the big problems in Syria are refugees and health maintenance," and Damascus is now apparently "receptive in terms of humanitarian aid and medical monitoring," given the coronavirus crisis.
Paul Sullivan, who is a professor at the U.S. National Defense University, told VOA that "the UAE has been a huge contributor of aid to Arab and other countries for decades." He said that "their leadership has a difficult relationship with Assad, but they see that the COVID-19 situation could be a complete catastrophe in Syria," and that it could "affect the entire region and beyond."